John R Baker (real name) is trained in Ethnology and Evolutionary Anthropology, and earned a Dr.Phil. from the University of Hamburg, Germany, in 1989. He is currently a Professor of Anthropology at Moorpark College in California. This experience occurred while he was in graduate training in 1979.
Table turning at spiritualist séances was once very common in Western countries, from the late 1800’s until after the First World War. It is interesting to see it is still with us and, in some cases, still puzzling people.
I find one of the most interesting aspects of this experience was Professor Baker’s remark while retrospectively commenting on his experience that “I originally wrote this short account in response to an anthropological colleague who, a little less than 10 years ago, put out a ‘call for submissions’ about anthropologists who had experienced ‘unusual’ events. He did not receive enough submissions to justify a book.” Given the enormous numbers of people who have told me about their unusual and transcendent experiences over several decades, I suspect it was not the case that anthropologists had almost never had such experiences, but that professional and social pressure to deny them was responsible for the book not being completed. One of the main purposes of TASTE is to allow an outlet for personal transcendent experiences.
The Tilting Table
While a graduate student at San Diego State University in the late 1970s, I became a student of the late Professor Philip Staniford. Staniford had been a student of the English anthropologist Edmund Leach, and had been trained to take a very level-headed, observational stance to the phenomena he was investigating. His arrival in California had apparently had its effects as well, for by the time I met him, Staniford had become interested in all manner of questions concerning reality and consciousness. As a result, he was able to teach me much about the subjective experience of the objective world and the objective study of subjective states.
In the Fall of 1979, Staniford offered a class entitled “Cross-Cultural Cosmology.” This was an evening class, held in the Social Science building on the San Diego State campus. One evening, he had something special in store for us: a visit by Adele Gerard Tinning, a local woman who had acquired a reputation for her purported abilities to gain access to “God’s Truth” by conversing with the spirit world. In the foreword to God’s Way of Life, a book of messages from that world which were “given through” her, Tinning describes how “….we have had over twelve thousand people here in our home who have flown in from all over the country to see how these Truths are received and in search of further Psychic Knowledge” (private printing, 1975:v).
In class, Tinning described a typical visit to her home. Sitting around the kitchen table, her guests would ask a question of the spirit world. In response, the table would tilt up on two legs and then drop down again. Counting the number of times the table rose and fell before there was a short pause yielded a letter; stringing these together produced the words of the answer (occasionally, she reported, the spirits would “misspell” a word slightly. She would then correct their spelling for the final transcription).
Tinning also told us that she dealt with more than one spirit. Sometimes, Jesus would come. According to Tinning, he could be recognized by the gentle manner in which he raised and lowered the table. More often, however, it was Moses who brought the messages from beyond. Moses was a rather rambunctious spirit, and when he was “talking,” the table would rise and fall tumultuously. Tinning, by the way, told us that neither of these spirits was anything like their Biblical characterizations. They were equals in the spirit world, but with personalities as different as those of any two of us.
After she had talked to the class for awhile, we asked whether it would be possible to “speak” with the spirits then and there. Tinning replied that although she normally spoke with them at home, it was indeed possible that one might come to the university.
Since our classroom was furnished solely with single-seat desks, I went with another student to a room next door. It had no rectangular tables, but did contain several of those trapezoidal tables which can be combined to make tables of many sizes and shapes. We took one of these back to our class. Tinning sat at it together with several of the other students. She had each of those seated place their hands palms down on the table. After a few introductory remarks, she began to ask whether any spirits might be present. Soon, the table began to rise onto two legs, then it dropped back. Tinning recognized the “voice,” it was that of Moses. She posed a few simple questions, none of which I can recall. Following each, the table would rise and fall. I, along with many of the other students, was on my knees watching what was happening under the table. As far as we could tell, no one was pushing up on or even touching the underside of the table.
Finally, after this had been going on for about 15 minutes, one of the students who was not seated around the table asked if the effect would be the same if Tinning left the table and a completely different group sat around it. Tinning replied that she had never attempted this, but that it was worth a try. Now, I too sat down at the table. Another question was posed, and the table began to rise! It rose on the side where I was sitting. I had been gently resting my hands palm down upon the table, and the sensation I had was that I was slowly lifting them off of the table, except that the table came with them. The perception of my gentle connection with the table remained as it had been while it had been standing on all four legs. The rising and falling continued some time.
While the second group was at the table, Tinning was sitting some feet distant. The room was well lit and, as with the first group, many of the observers were on their hands and knees, watching what was transpiring underneath the table. As before, no one was able to detect any use of hands, arms, or legs.
Apart from Staniford and one other person, all of the observers were either students or friends of students. The exception was a woman who had been introduced to us as a reporter from a local newspaper. She had supposedly heard of Tinning’s abilities, was very skeptical of them, and wanted to find out for herself. She was, if I recall correctly, one of the persons who sat around table as part of the second group. Like Tinning before her, she was not observed to exert any pressure on the table. As far as I could tell, the look of amazement which was written on her face while the table was rising and falling was indeed genuine.
Since the room was well illuminated, and because I had personally helped select the table which we used, had been watching both above and below the table while it was tilting during the first session, and was also able to sit at the table during the second, I was forced to admit that my prior learning and experience offered no credible explanation for what I had observed. Perhaps Tinning really was communicating with the “spirit world,” or perhaps she was tapping into something on a more mundane plane. Or perhaps she was simply a very good trickster. I have never received a satisfactory explanation for this event. Until I do, it is stored in my memory under “Pending.”
Tinning, Adele Gerard 1975 God’s Way of Life: Given Through Adele Gerard Tinning, private printing.
Contributor’s Comments on the Experience
I originally wrote this short account in response to an anthropological colleague who, a little less than 10 years ago, put out a “call for submissions” about anthropologists who had experienced “unusual” events. He did not receive enough submissions to justify a book, so he sent it back to me. It has never been published in any form.
In retrospect, I can say that this experience definitely demonstrated that there are more things going on than I have explanations for. But I cannot say that this event will never be explained by, for example, physics — I just think that our current conceptions of the physical world might have to be expanded.